By Bidisha Saha: In an increasingly authoritarian set-up of the Chinese Community Party (CCP), scores of people in China are speaking up against the repressive rule, shows a recent report by Freedom House, a Washington-based thinktank. The fault lines are perceived to be deepening amid the rising number of demonstrations and consecutively robust resistance from the government.
Recent protest videos on Twitter depict increasing widespread anger among the residents of Guangzhou, one of the country’s largest cities in the Haizhu district of China having a population of nearly 19 million. Hundreds of protesters were seen rallying on the streets and pushing over police barricades, in a show of public resentment over Covid-19 restrictions. Protesters can be seen attempting to break free from the confines of barriers meant to impose compulsory lockdown due to the rising number of coronavirus cases.
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— Organic Human (@pat_kumar) November 18, 2022
India Today spoke to a Health Security Scholar from Johns Hopkins Center, Dr. Amesh Adalja, whose work is focused on pandemic preparedness and biosecurity, to understand the implications of China’s “zero-covid” policy. He calls it an “ irrational unscientific fantasy” that is being forced on the people for the greed of “raw power” and states that “if optimal Covid management were the goal, mRNA vaccines would have long been made available in China.”
“The Chinese people have correctly identified that their individual rights crushing authoritarian government have failed them and, hopefully, dissent is just the beginning of a process to hold them accountable for forbidding life,” he adds.
Twitter is officially blocked in Xi Jinping’s China and internet policing departments operated to scrub away any posts with hashtags on the topic of “riots” and “protests” on Weibo, its homegrown Twitter-like application, as per the reports of Reuters.
In its imperial regime, China has been using intrusive technologies like grid management systems, pervasive surveillance and targeted populations management to expand its surveillance on people and transmission channels within the country. However, it is almost implausible that one party has established an unprecedented system to control citizens from having any penchant for activism. A new Freedom House initiative, the China Dissent Monitor has found that people in China have frequently registered their dissent against those in power, “regularly and geographically widespread.”
WHAT IS CHINA’S DISSENT MONITOR (CDM)?
Created for the purpose of bridging the information gap resulting from media restrictions and associated risks in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), CDM works towards collecting and sharing information about the frequency and diversity of dissent in mainland China.
The China Dissent Monitor has documented 735 events of protests and other dissent activities in mainland China since May 18, 2022. The top factors behind these were reported to be delayed housing projects, pay and benefits, state violence, fraud, building and school disputes, and Covid-19 policies. Around 70% of these protests were group demonstrations but other modes of dissent also include banner protest, collective petitioning, road obstruction, and online dissent via large-scale hashtag movements and viral posts.
FREQUENCY OF DISSENT
Freedom House’s report admits to being a “drastic underrepresentation” of protest numbers but holds the fact that a minimum of 8,775 people cumulatively participated in the 636 offline dissent events.
DIVERSITY OF DISSENT
Kevin Slaten, the research lead of CDM for Freedom House, said to India Today, “CDM tracked nearly 20 different forms of offline and online dissent, from street demonstration to strikes, to obstruction and occupation, to signs and graffiti, to performance art and online hashtag movements,” commenting on the diversity of protest covered by the report.
He adds, “Despite systematic efforts by the one-party regime to prevent collective action and mobilization, people in China are using a variety of ways to express grievances and protect their rights in contention with powerful actors. CDM’s aim is to amplify those voices.”
TOP ISSUES OF PROTEST
Property buyers led 43 percent of all dissent events recorded by CDM, 73 percent of which are linked to delayed housing projects. While the most common target of these protests is developers, 27 percent also involve actions targeted by the administration to demand accountability.
After Xi Jinping imposed “three red lines” in 2016 aimed at capping the debt for real-estate companies, real-estate developers are finding it difficult to finance projects. Due to this recurrent debt crisis added to covid restrictions, the construction of many housing projects has stalled, which has pushed buyers into financial hardships. They are being forced to pay mortgages for unfinished projects while also managing the rent for current accommodation.
CDM has also reported 37 cases of protests against Covid-19 restrictions, including large street demonstrations and online hashtag movements with thousands of posts, linked to at least 14 provinces or directly administered cities.
REPRESSION BY GOVT
Repression has been noted in around 25% of all cases, that is, there have been 238 cases of repression during the reporting period.
“Violence—often in the form of shoving or dragging protesters—is the most prevalent form of repression, when combining state and nonstate incidents,” the report stated.
Despite coordinated efforts by the government to reduce the visibility of online dissent, individual and collective dissent is widespread in cyberspace. Hashtag movements, viral posts, performance arts, online protests, joint letters, commemorations, and individual posts were the most preferred modes of online dissent.
Police have unfettered access to user communication and personal details on social media apps like WeChat, QQ, Weibo, etc which extends even outside criminal contexts. Targeted individuals caught in surveillance dragnet may face arbitrary detention and harsh prison sentences among other repercussions, but the infiltration tactics have bigger effects across international borders.
Earlier American tech-giant Microsoft in its intelligence report stated that China has increased espionage efforts “seeking to counter US influence and steal critical data and information.”
XI JINPING AND JOE BIDEN’S MEETING
In their first in-person meeting as the top leaders, Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke with US President Joe Biden for more than three hours on the sidelines of the G20 meet in Indonesia. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a 1600-word summary where President Xi kept “freedom, democracy, and human rights” as the common pursuit for both US and China.
On the subject of governance, he rejected Biden’s narrative of a global competition between “democracy versus authoritarianism” and emphasized that China has a “Chinese-style democracy” and neither the US nor China “should try to remould the other in one’s own image, or seek to change or even subvert the other’s system.”
Mike Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, said, “Contrary to what the CCP wants the world to believe, individuals throughout China are standing up to Beijing’s machine of censorship and repression to make their voices heard.”
India Today spoke to the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, who stated that Xi Jinping’s ‘zero-covid’ policies are widely known but he has “zero tolerance for dissent”.
He also finds it “remarkable that so many people in China dare to take to the streets in protest against lengthy Covid lockdowns and other arbitrary and repressive aspects of government policy despite the real possibility of arrest and imprisonment. Many people in China want a government that answers to their concerns, but Xi Jinping, afraid of allowing people any voice, has imposed the tightest Communist Party dictatorship in years.”